Friday, December 19, 2014

10 Things A Planet Needs to Make it Habitable

artist rendition of Kepler 186f
Using the latest Kepler telescope, scientists have recently discovered close to 140 Earth-like planets among thousands of exotic exoplanets in the galaxy. They claim that many more could harbor the right conditions for life. Astrophysicist Natalie Batalha, mission scientist for the Kepplar Space telescope (NASA Ames Research Centre as part of the NASA Discovery Program): “to determine the fraction of stars in our galaxy that harbor potentially habitable Earth-size planets.”… The one common ingredient that makes a planet habitable, Batalha tells us, is the need for liquid water. They are looking for planets “with rocky services where water could pool, that are receiving the right amount of energy from the star where the water wouldn’t be locked up in a frozen state because the planet is too cold, nor would it be evaporated away because it’s too hot. We call it the Goldilocks Zone where liquid water can exist.”

Exoplanet Kepler 186f, located 490 light-years from Earth and nicknamed Earth’s cousin was discovered by the Kepler telescope earlier this year. Orbiting star Kepler 186, it is the first validated Earth-like planet to orbit a distant star in its habitable zone. It could support oceans and alien life. 
I’m an ecologist and, like my mother who is a master baker, I love to create ecosystems from scratch. So the research to world-build has been a fun part of writing my science fiction novels to date.

  • The duology Darwin’s Paradox and Angel of Chaos, are set on Earth in 2095 in a climate-changed Greater Toronto Area (now called Icaria-5); Icaria-5 is an enclosed community, nested in a wild heathland, abandoned by a fearful society governed by a Technocratic government of ecologists. 

  • The Splintered Universe Trilogy explores several potentially habitable worlds that I researched through NASA files.  Each world portrayed in the three books is a realizable and habitable world—OK, in some cases with the help of a little bio-geo alteration by the Eosian race…
Most of the places I researched and used for our intrepid hero, galactic detective Rhea Hawke of the Splintered Universe Trilogy, appeared on NASA’s Terrestrial Planet Finder top 100 list:
Iota Horologii: Neon City is Rhea Hawke’s hometown and where the main precinct of the Galactic Guardian force, for which she works, is headquartered. It’s on Iota Hor-2, which orbits Iota Horologii b (a Jupitor-like gas giant) in the Iota Horologii system (a Class G0Vp, yellow-orange main sequence dwarf star. The moon was tidally influenced by the jovian giant: it had an atmosphere in danger of being periodically sucked away, and an eccentric orbit that swung from a tropical summer to a Siberian winter. That was bio-geo altered by the Eosians. The Horologium Constellation is located near Taurus and Orion. Iota Horologii became one of the top 100 target stars for NASA’s Terrestrial Planet Finder (TPF). 
70 Virginis: Rhea visits Virgil City on the moon Virgil 9, orbiting 70 Virginis b (Goldilocks), a jovian planet. The star is a G4V class yellow-orange main sequence dwarf. Virgil city suffers from periodic intense heat and drought to long nights of intense flooding. The natives, an amoeba-like colony have adapted to these severe conditions. 
47 Ursae Majoris: Rhea first visits Pyramid City on 47 Ursae Majoris b (47 Uma b), a volcanic  planet called Horus by its bird-like inhabitants. She then visits Paradise City on Uma 1, an icy moon that orbits the planet and used as a spiritual retreat by the Schiss, a Gnostic religious sect. 47 Ursae Majoris is a solar analog, yellow dwarf star that is listed as one of the top 100 target stars in NASA’s TPF. 
Pleiades Nabula: this open star cluster in the Taurus Constellation is the home for the planet Eos, where the Eosians, who run the Galactic Guardian force come from.
Other systems Rhea visits include: HD 177830, HD 168443, HD 70642, HD 222582, HD 28185, 55 Cancri, Gliese 876, Fomalhaut, and the M103 star cluster.

Ten Criteria for Habitable Worlds
Here are ten criteria identified by NASA scientists for a habitable planet:
1. Habitable Goldilocks Neighbourhood
The habitable zone (HZ) is the distance from a star where an Earth-like planet can maintain liquid water on its surface and Earth-like life. The habitable zone is not the same as “planetary habitability”. While planetary habitability describes the planetary conditions needed to maintain carbon-based life, the habitable zone describes the stellar conditions required to maintain carbon-based life.
A ” Goldilocks planet ” is a planet that falls within a star’s habitable zone, and the name is often specifically used for planets close to the size of Earth. The name comes from the story of Goldilocks and the Three Bears, in which the little girl, Goldilocks, rules out extreme choices (large or small, hot or cold, etc.), In the same way, a planet following the Goldilocks Principle is one that is neither too close nor too far from a star to rule out liquid water on its surface and life (as humans understand it).
Scientists describe areas they think are less suited to life than others:
  • globular cluster in the midst of immense star densities with excessive radiation and gravitational disturbance.
  • near an active gamma ray source.
  • near the galactic center where a supermassive black hole is believed to lie (e.g., Gargantua in Interstellar)

2. Less Alterations in Luminosity of its Star

Changes in luminosity are common to all stars, but the severity of the fluctuations ranges broadly. A small number of variable stars experience sudden and intense increases in luminosity, making them poor candidates for hosting life-bearing planets. Life adapted to a specific temperature range would likely not survive great and variable temperature fluctuations. Upswings in luminosity create massive doses of gamma ray and X-ray radiation. Atmospheres mitigate such effects; however, planets orbiting variables may be periodically stripped of their atmosphere by the high-frequency energy buffeting them.

3. High Metallicity of its Star

A star’s metallicity results from the proportion of its matter made up of chemical elements other than hydrogen and helium. Since stars that make up most of the visible matter in the universe, are composed mostly of hydrogen and helium, astronomers use the blanket term “metal” to describe all other elements collectively. A low amount of metal hugely decreases the probability that planets of sufficient mass favorable for life would have formed.
4. Good Jupiters
These are gas giant planets, like our Jupiter, that orbit their stars in circular orbits far enough away from the habitable zone to not disturb it but close enough to “protect” terrestrial planets in closer orbit in two critical ways:
  • they help stabilize the orbits, and climates, of the inner planets.
  • they keep the inner solar system relatively free of comets and asteroids that could cause devastating impacts. Jupiter orbits the Sun at about five times the distance between the Earth and the Sun. This is the rough distance we should expect to find good Jupiters elsewhere. Jupiter’s “caretaker” role was illustrated in 1994 when Comet Shoemaker-Levy 9 impacted the giant; had Jovian gravity not captured the comet, it could have entered the inner solar system.
5. More Mass
Low-mass planets are poor candidates for life for two reasons:
  • lesser gravity makes atmosphere retention difficult. Molecules are more likely to reach escape velocity and be lost to space when buffeted by solar wind or stirred by collision.
  • smaller planets have smaller diameters and higher surface-to-volume ratios than  larger planets. They will lose the energy left over from their formation too quickly, lacking the volcanoes, earthquakes and tectonic activity that supplies the surface with life-sustaining material and the atmosphere with temperature moderators like carbon dioxide. Plate tectonics recycle important chemicals and minerals; they also foster bio-diversity through continent creation and increased environmental complexity and help create the convective cells necessary to generate a magnetic field.

A larger mass will more likely retain a molten core as a heat engine, driving the diverse geology of the surface. A larger planet is also more likely to have a large iron core with a magnetic field to protect the planet from stellar wind and cosmic radiation.
6. Less Eccentric Orbit
Orbital eccentricity is the difference between a planet’s farthest and closest approach to its parent star divided by the sum of that distances. This ratio describes the shape of the elliptical orbit. The greater the eccentricity, the greater the temperature fluctuation on a planet’s surface. When the fluctuations overlap both the freezing point and boiling point of the planet’s main biotic solvent (e.g., water on Earth), life is severely compromised. The more complex the organism, the greater the temperature sensitivity. The Earth’s orbit is almost wholly circular, with an eccentricity of less than 0.02.
7. Axial Tilt
A planet’s movement around its rotational axis must also meet certain criteria for life to evolve. If little or no axial tilt (or obliquity) exists relative to the perpendicular of the ecliptic, seasons will not occur and a main stimulant to biospheric dynamism will disappear. Alternatively, if a planet is radically tilted, seasons will be extreme and make it more difficult for a biosphere to achieve homeostasis.
8. Biomass & Long-Term Orbiting Bodies
The four elements most vital for life on Earth—carbon, hydrogen, oxygen, and nitrogen—are also the most common chemically reactive elements in the universe. Simple biogenic compounds, such as amino acids, were found in meteorites and in the interstellar medium. These four elements together comprise over 96% of Earth’s collective biomass. Carbon has an unparalleled ability to bond with itself and to form a massive array of intricate and varied structures, making it an ideal material for the complex mechanisms that form living cells. Hydrogen and oxygen (in the form of water) are the solvent in which biological processes take place and where the first reactions occurred that led to life’s emergence on Earth. The energy released in the formation of powerful covalent bonds between carbon and oxygen, available through oxidizing organic compounds, is the fuel of all complex life-forms on Earth. Although these four “life elements” appear to be readily available elsewhere, a habitable system likely also requires a supply of long-term orbiting bodies to seed inner planets. Without comets there is a possibility that life as we know it would not exist on Earth.
9. Microenvironment
Only a tiny portion of a planet needs to support life to make it habitable. The discovery of life in extreme conditions has complicated definitions of habitability, but also generated a lot of excitement in greatly broadening the known range of conditions under which life can persist. For example, a planet whose solar conditions would generally prohibit an atmosphere from forming, might nurture one within a deep shadowed rift or volcanic cave. Similarly, craterous terrain might offer a refuge for primitive life.
10. Different Metabolism Mechanism
Some scientists hypothesize that lifeforms evolving around a different metabolic mechanism may have arisen. In Evolving the Alien, biologist Jack Cohen and mathematician Ian Stewart suggest that Earth-like planets may be very rare, but that non-carbon-based complex life could emerge in other environments. The most frequently mentioned alternative to carbon is silicon-based life, while ammonia is sometimes suggested as an alternative solvent to water.

An April 17th article on identifies 10 exoplanets that could host alien life. They include:
  • Kepler 186f
  • Gliese 581g
  • Gliese 667Cc
  • Kepler 22b
  • HD 40307g
  • HD 85512b
  • Tau Ceti e
  • Gliese 163c
  • Gliese 581d
  • Tau Ceti f

None were planets that I’d chosen. But that’s just 10 so far in a host of many more to come; it’s only a matter of time.

Saturday, December 13, 2014

Saint Lucia’s Day Blessed Me with Light

I paint not by sight but by faith. Faith gives you sight—Amos Ferguson

Saint Lucia
Do you believe in miracles?

On this day, some twenty-odd years ago, after over 12 hours of hard labour, I rejoiced in God’s miracle of creation.  I gave birth to a beautiful son. A soul of brilliant light. My son was born on Saint Lucia’s Day, named after St. Lucy of Syracuse—the saint of light. A day celebrated as a National Day on the tiny island of Saint Lucia in the Caribbean, named after its patron saint, St. Lucy. While I was laboring all night in a Vancouver hospital, the island of Saint Lucia gleamed in the brilliance of the National Festival of Lights and Renewal.

Saint Lucia is one of the earliest Christian martyrs. She was brutally killed by the Romans in 304 AD because of her religious beliefs, refusing to consecrate her marriage to a pagan. Lucia (which literally means light; lux, lucis) secretly brought food to the persecuted Catholics in Rome, who lived in hiding in the catacombs under the city. She wore candles on her head to liberate both hands so she could carry more. You can read more about the story here.

St. Lucia’s Day is a festival of lights primarily celebrated in Sweden, Norway and the Swedish-speaking areas of Finland on December 13th in honour of St. Lucia. The day is celebrated by choosing a girl to dress in a white dress with a crown of candles on her head as part of a carol-singing procession. The girl’s crown is made of Lingonberry branches, which are evergreen and symbolize new life in winter.

The festival marks the beginning of the Christmas season in Scandinavia and brings hope and light during the darkest time of the years. Scandinavian families celebrate the day with coffee and baked goods such as saffron bread (lussekatter) and ginger biscuits (pepparkakor).

In earlier times, when this festivity coincided with the Winter Solstice, the shortest day of the year, huge bonfires were constructed to scare off evil spirits and alter the course of the sun. Since the calendar reforms, her feast day became a festival of light. Celebrated most commonly in Scandinavia (with its long dark winters), Saint Lucia’s Day is a major feast day. The Italians also ostensibly celebrate this day, but emphasize a different aspect of her story. The devotions to light predate Christian times with pagan midwinter elements, centered on the annual struggle between light and darkness.

So, on this day, twelve days before Christmas and eight days before the shortest day of the year (the Winter Solstice), I celebrate my miracle.  The miracle of light, but also of chiaroscuro, where light and dark play to create enlightenment. Because, just as you cannot have “up” without “down”, you cannot have light without dark.

“At the place of darkest dark, the light in contrast is the most noticeable,” Marianne Hieb, author of Inner Journeying Through Art-Journaling (2005) tells us. She tells us that it is in the places of greatest contrast … “grace is waiting there for you.”

When my son was born, I was born too. So was my art. I was already creating. I had written some   
My little boy...
short stories and had published a few articles. But it wasn’t until my son was born that my creativity exploded. Became galvanized. Achieved meaning. Just as light helps define texture and form, my son helped me define my balance, movement, rhythm, contrast, emphasis, pattern and unity.

Marianne Hieb tells us that these are the very principles of design. Like the fabric of a fine tapestry, they hold aspects of creativity together and define our art.  Just as they define us.

...grows up
Balance: you find balance when you first walk, ride a bike, skate and ski. In art, balance refers to the distribution of visual weights. It is the visual equilibrium of the elements that comprise the entire image. Symmetrical balance is achieved when elements or sections of equal quality mirror each other. An example of asymmetrical balance with unequal elements would be a painting where one small intense color can balance a grouping of less intense and larger things. This provides excellent metaphor in journal representations and life-journeys. Think of the balances between irregular and simple shapes, intense and subdued colors. Think color, shape, size, texture, value when creating balance or showing the opposite. Balance can indicate movement and can also radiate out from a single point of focus.

Movement: A balance of movement and stillness exists in all works of art, in dance, in music, in painting, sculpture and literature. Says Hieb, “Shapes and colors move the eye most easily through the work. Lines provide visual passage or linkage. Your eyes follow the edges of darkness or edges of light. Visual movement leads your seeing through the work, to a point of focus.” Horizontal, vertical and diagonal are the three main types of visual movement. Horizontal movement usually conveys a calm or restful sense. If you use vertical movement, you may be expressing a feeling of firmness or stability or even growing. Diagonal movement often reflects action and swiftness.

Rhythm: Rhythm is the repetition of visual movement of color, shapes, lines, values, forms, spaces and textures. Movement and rhythm work together, says Hieb. Rhythms are present in all natural things and can be regular, irregular, staccato and progressive. Rhythm has the power of uniting and energizing images and themes, through implied connection and relationship.

Contrast: contrast is delivered through color, texture, and shape. Contrast creates visual excitement, drama. Says Hieb, “at the place of darkest dark, the light in contrast is the most noticeable … [in] the places of greatest contrast … grace is waiting there for you.” Contrast can exist in many forms: smooth vs. rough; light vs. dark; dry vs. wet; playful vs. dour; anger vs. forgiveness — just to name a few. Contrast is drama. It is a place of potential conflict, tension, and great enlightenment.

Emphasis:  Emphasis creates focus. You can emphasize color, shapes, direction or other art elements to achieve dominance, says Hieb. Given that each of these elements is significance with the psyche, what elements you chose to emphasize in your drawing or selection of art can give you additional insight to what was important to you or affecting you at the time. For instance, colors can reflect mood: red emphasizes and reflects passion or danger; green reflects nature and healing; orange is fun and warm; blue is cool and calming, etc. Shapes can be very symbolic. Researchers have shown that angular shapes are less apt to elevate feelings of comfort and well being then circular shapes, which engender feelings of safety, unity and harmony. Squares can reflect conformity and equality; triangles can suggest self-discovery and revelation; spirals can express creativity, and so on.

Pattern: A pattern is basically a recognizable series of elements. For instance, you experience patterns of activities and behavior. Patterns are the planned or random repetitions that occur in nature and in your life. They increase visual excitement. Patterns that occur in nature exhibit unique and exquisite beauty. Pattern — in shape, color, texture — can relate to one’s history, personal experiences, and choices. They can similarly reveal our reactions, reflections and feelings.

Proud Mom...
Unity: the use of a dominant color scheme or overall surface treatment creates a strong sense of unity. Unity provides the cohesive quality that makes an artwork feel complete and finished, says Hieb. “A subjective sense of oneness is the felt experience of the principle of unity,” she adds. Unity is achieved through the harmonious integration of the previous elements I named. What unity looks like will be unique to each individual and to their stage in their life journey.

Happy Birthday, Son. You are my light. 

My miracle.


Hieb, Marianne. 2005. Inner Journeying Through Art-Journaling. Jessica Kingsley Publishers, London. 176pp.

Munteanu, Nina. 2013. The Journal Writer: Finding Your Voice. Pixl Press, Vancouver, British Columbia. 172pp.

Thursday, December 4, 2014

Blowing Bubbles at the Centre of our Galaxy

Fermi Bubbles of our Milky Way
In Outer Diverse, the first book of the space thriller trilogy The Splintered Universe, Detective Rhea Hawke travels through the dangers “breathing” galaxies and dark matter in her quest for justice:

When I’d joined up as an Enforcer, the Guardians gave me my own starship, a rare ray-class retro Earth/alien design that no one else wanted. It didn’t matter to me. Benny was mine. Thanks to Benny’s plasma shields, we’d weathered treacherous ionic storms, gamma-ray bursts, and the high-velocity clouds of the breathing galaxy. We jacked the Magellanic Stream and travelled to the farthest arms of the spiral galaxy, surfing scalar fields into thrilling particle stream shortcuts. We’d even slingshot our way around the black hole in the galactic core using its immense gravitational field and high-energy emissions. I’d witnessed many galactic wonders like the terrifying beauty of nebulas: tangled filaments of dust and ionized gas that poured out in jets and waves from the stellar corpse of a neutron star. Pulsing electromagnetic energy, the shock wave of material flung from the supernova created a spectacular lightshow that shredded anything in its path, drawing me into breathless wonder …

The stuff of science fiction isn’t always fiction. Was Rhea Hawke talking about the Fermi
Bubbles? Gigantic gamma-ray “bubbles”, stretching thousands of light-years north and south from the galactic centre of the Milky Way…

About four years ago, NASA revealed an incredible structure discovered by astronomers at their Fermi Gamma-ray Space Telescope. Spanning 50,000 light-years and extending north and south of the Milky Way’s centre like a giant infinity symbol, the gargantuan gamma ray bubbles—now called the Fermi Bubbles—are speculated to be the remnants of an eruption from a supersized black hole at the centre of our galaxy. 

“The outlines of the bubbles are quite sharp, and the bubbles themselves glow in nearly uniform gamma rays over their colossal surfaces, like two 30,000-light-year-tall incandescent bulbs screwed into the center of the galaxy,” Stanford scientists and the Department of Energy's SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory reported in an April 2014 paper in The Astrophysical Journal. Their size is another puzzle. The farthest reaches of the Fermi bubbles contain some of the highest energy gamma rays, but there's no discernable cause for them that far from the galaxy. Another difference from other galactic bubbles is that the parts of the bubbles closest to the galactic plane shine in microwaves as well as gamma rays, but at about two-thirds of the way out, the microwaves fade out and only gamma rays are detectable.

“Gamma rays are the bad boys of the electromagnetic spectrum—the highest energy light in the universe,” says Bob Berman of the Almanac Weekly. “Because of this, they do not reliably reflect off objects the way that visible light does. Rather, they are penetrating. Such photons drill through bodies at the speed of light, damaging chromosomes all along the way.” The hour-glass shaped structure spans more than half of the visible sky, from the constellation Virgo to the constellation Grus, and it may be millions of years old.

Doug Finkbeiner and his team at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics in Cambridge, Mass discovered the bubbles by processing publicly available data from Fermi's Large Area Telescope (LAT). The LAT is the most sensitive and highest-resolution gamma-ray detector ever launched.

The bubble emissions have a well-defined shape and are much more energetic than the gamma-ray fog seen elsewhere in the Milky Way, suggesting that it was formed from a large and rapid energy release - the source of which remains a mystery.

“Fortunately, few gamma rays reach us here at Earth’s surface,” Berman continues. “Stars
A giant "burp" from a black hole...?
usually don’t emit them, and in any case our atmosphere blocks them. The only gamma rays flying near Earth have come from distant violent events like supernovae. This is why a dense gamma-ray swarm at our own galaxy’s center is so puzzling. It’s the unmistakable sign of extreme violence. And yet, these days, the Milky Way’s core is about as energetic as a steamy Florida lunchtime.”

What Blew the Bubbles?

NASA speculates that the bubbles could have been created by huge jets of accelerated matter blasting out from the supermassive black hole at the center of our galaxy. Or they may have formed as gas outflows from a burst of star formation, perhaps the one that created the massive star clusters in the Milky Way's center several million years ago.

"In other galaxies, we see that starbursts can drive enormous gas outflows," said David Spergel, a scientist at Princeton University in New Jersey.  "Whatever the energy source behind these huge bubbles may be, it is connected to many deep questions in astrophysics."

Berman asks, “Might these be the long-sought signs of dark matter? Could dark matter be meeting its opposite entity (whatever that is) in total annihilation, the way that matter and antimatter do?” As Fermi research team leader Douglas Bookbeiner put it, “This just confuses everything.” Except the science fiction writers (smug grin).

For more information about Fermi, visit:

Nina Munteanu is an ecologist and internationally published author of novels, short stories and essays. She coaches writers and teaches writing at George Brown College and the University of Toronto. For more about Nina’s coaching & workshops visit for more about her writing.

Tuesday, November 25, 2014

Snowpiercer and the Machine of Life

What’s left of humanity—after we broke the world—is crammed in a speeding train that circles a frozen Earth … forever.

Bong Joon-Ho’s motion picture Snowpiercer is a stylish post-climate change apocalypse allegory. A dark pastiche of surrealistic insanity, welded together with moments of poetic pondering and steam-punk slick in a frenzied frisson you can almost smell.  Joon-Ho casts each scene in metallic grays and blues that make the living already look half-dead. The entire film plays like a twisted steam-punkish baroque symphony. Violence personified in a garish ballet.  

The train’s self-contained closed ecosystem is maintained by an ordered social system, imposed by a
stony militia. Those at the front enjoy privileges and luxurious living conditions, though most drown in a debauched drug stupor; those at the back live on next to nothing and must resort to savage means to survive. This film isn’t about climate change—that’s just a plot point to serve the premise of a study on how society functions—or rather copes—within a decadent capitalist system, based on an edict of productivity: serve the machine of “life”. Satisfy the sacred machine at all costs; complete with subterfuge, oppression and references to cannibalism. Beneath the film’s blatant statement on the emptiness of the pursuit of capital at any cost lies a deeper more subtle exploration on the nature of humanity. Die to live or live to die?

In a recent interview with io9, Joon-Ho said, “the science fiction genre lends itself perfectly to questions about class struggle, and different types of revolution.”

Revolution brews from the back, lead by Curtis Everett (Chris Evans), who confesses to a forced recruit, along the way, “A thousand people in an iron box. No food, no water. After a month we ate the weak. You know what I hate about myself? I know what people tastes like....I know that babies taste best.”

Minister Mason (Tilda Swinton), an imperious yet simpering figure who serves the ruling class without quite being part of it, reminds the lower class that: 

"Order is the barrier that holds back the flood o death. We must all of us on this train of life remain in our allotted station. We must each of us occupy our preordained particular position. Would you wear a shoe on your head? Of course you wouldn't wear a shoe on your head. A shoe doesn't belong on your head. A shoe belongs on your foot. A hat belongs on your head. I am a hat. You are a shoe. I belong on the head. You belong on the foot. Yes? So it is. 
In the beginning, order was prescribed by your ticket: First Class, Economy, and freeloaders like you. Eternal order is prescribed by the sacred engine: all things flow from the sacred engine, all things in their place, all passengers in their section, all water flowing, all heat rising, pays homage to the sacred engine, in its own particular preordained position. So it is. 
Now, as in the beginning, I belong to the front. You belong to the tail.  
When the foot seeks the place of the head, the sacred line is crossed. Know your place. Keep your place. Be a shoe."--Minister Mason 

It's all about the engine for both front and tail. It saved humanity, after all. It is their future. Curtis tells his colleagues that they will move forward: "We take the engine and we control the world. It's time we take the engine."

“Reform and revolution are shibboleths that distinguish liberals from radicals,” explains Aaron Bady
Curtis (Chris Evans)
of The New Inquiry. “While liberals want to reform capitalism, without fundamentally transforming it, radicals want to tear it up from the roots (the root word of “radical” is root!) and replace capitalism with something that isn’t capitalism…If you’re the kind of leftist who thinks that the means of production just need to be in better hands—Obama, for example, instead of George W. Bush, or Elizabeth Warren instead of Obama, or Bernie Sanders instead of Elizabeth Warren, and so on—then this movie buries a poison pill inside its protein bar: soylent green is people.”

Gilliam (John Hurt)
The train “eats” the children of the poor; using them to replace the sacred engine parts that have worn out in a kind of retro-transhumanist collaboration of human and machine and creating a perverse immortal cyborg entity. Only, the individual children die in the process and need to be constantly replaced to maintain the eternal whole. They have become cogs in a giant wheel of eternity.

Curtis’s revolution is doomed from the start; once he reaches the front, it is revealed to him that the entire conflict and resulting deaths were orchestrated all along to help maintain population balance. Wilford (Ed Harris), the genius who created the train with a perpetual motion engine, tells Curtis once they meet that, “this is the world…The engine lasts forever. The population must always be kept in balance.” Which begs the obvious question: why not just get rid of all of the lower class “scum” (as Mason calls them)? That would make room for the privileged. What purpose do these lower class serve? Well, aside from providing their children as parts to the sacred engine, they are there to be hated, feared and despised by the elite. When the soul is empty and needs “filling” but can’t be filled, then it finds a substitute.

Aaron Bady of The New Inquirer relates, “Instead of giving Texans a health care system, for example,
Nam (Song Kang-Ho)
late capitalism gives them the illegal immigrant, to hate, to fear, and to dis-identify with. Prisons do more and more of the system-maintaining work that was once done by schools and hospitals: instead of giving us something to want, they give us something to fear, hate, and kill. And so, we eat ourselves.” We die to live.

Wilford grooms Curtis as the new engineer and reveals to him the true nature of the engine. “You’ve seen what people do without leadership,” says Wilford to Curtis. “They devour one another.” This is dark irony considering what the train is doing. And it is when Curtis discovers this awful truth that his reformist revolution comes to a dead halt and he makes a decision that takes him into the realm beyond the train.

This movie is about hard choices and transcendence. … Save humanity, but at the consequence of our souls? Or transcend a machine that has robbed us of our souls at the expense of our mortality? The film continually questions our definition of what life is; what makes life worth living.

The film, whose script by Joon-Ho and Kelly Masterson is based loosely on the French graphic novel Le Transperceneige by Jacques Lob, graphically portrays the fecklessness of a reformist/revolutionary movement to transcend the decadent capitalist machine (the train). It begins with the adoption of a failing system from a previously failed system. Perhaps it is a truism that most reformist movements fail to challenge the true hegemony of the system they intend to overtake, given their origin. What we get is little genuine change; just a shuffle in protocol.

Peter Frase of Jacobin Magazine shares that, it’s all the more effective because the heart of that critique comes as a late surprise, from a character we might not expect.”

Namgoog Minsoo (Song Kang-Ho) is a spaced-out drug addict that Curtis ‘liberates’ from a drawer to
Wilford (Ed Harris)
help them open the gates to the forward sections. Like everyone on the train, Nam is a little crazy. But he differs in one important way: he believes there is hope outside the train. Unlike his reformist brothers, he’s looked outside the construct, studied the realm beyond the train. Perhaps it is drug-induced fantasy. Perhaps he’s simply had enough of a lifetime of “non-life” onboard the train and would rather die outside to truly live, even if for a brief moment. When the chance for this moment materializes, we, like Nam and his daughter Yona (Ko Ah-Sung), are more than ready to jump the train. In fact, we’re desperate to get off this shadow game of bread and circuses. Even if it means freezing to death in moments.

Only Yona and one of the rescued children from the engine, survive the train crash, thanks to Curtis’s truly revolutionary decision.

“Is it more revolutionary to want to take control of the society that’s oppressed you, or to try and escape from that system altogether?” asks Joon-Ho.

I felt a cathartic surge of relief when the train
came to a violent crashing stop; even though it effectively meant the end of humanity. My visceral response was incredible relief. The scene following the train crash was —despite the inhospitable and cold environment—surrealistically fresh, invigorating and serene.  Along with Yona and one of the children Curtis rescued, we’ve escaped the rushing perversity: the obsession to survive at any cost. We’ve chosen to live to die.

As Yona and the child crunch through the snow in the quiet depth of coldness, they glimpse a polar bear. There is life! Perhaps not humanity. But life on Earth.

And in that connection, we live. 

Even if just for a moment.

Nina Munteanu is an ecologist and internationally published author of novels, short stories and essays. She coaches writers and teaches writing at George Brown College and the University of Toronto. For more about Nina’s coaching & workshops visit for more about her writing.